The Dastardly Dozen: 12 Recycling Myths Debunked

By Jay, Leslie | Management Review, June 1992 | Go to article overview

The Dastardly Dozen: 12 Recycling Myths Debunked


Jay, Leslie, Management Review


In elementary school, most of us learned that our planet is round, not flat, that the sun, not the earth, is the center of our galaxy, and that many other galaxies exist. But when it comes to our understanding of packaging--and its ultimate end product, garbage--we might as well live in a pre-Copernican universe, in the dark ages of illusion and misinformation.

Herewith, we peel away the wrappings from a dozen down-and-dirty myths about our environment:

1 Degradable plastics are desirable.

Most plastics are as durable as they are lightweight, which is why they make such dandy containers. Enter degradable plastics--biodegradables and photodegradables. When exposed to the elements, the former decay through bacterial action; the latter slowly disintegrate in sunlight. Alas, most of this material ends up in landfills, where neither air nor light penetrates. So much for degradability.

Moreover, as Anita Glazer Sadun, Thomas F. Webster and Barry Commoner pointed out in "Breaking Down the Degradable Plastics Scam," a report prepared for the environmental organization Greenpeace, these plastics may turn into powder, but they don't truly decompose (i.e., break down into their original elements). Moreover, as they crumble, these plastics may release traces of toxic metals used in coloring agents.

From a business perspective, the worst thing about degradable plastics is that they can't be reused. "Although the absolute numbers are still low, there has been real growth in general in plastics recycling," says Robert Garino, director of commodities at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), which represents 1,800 scrap processors, consumers and brokers of metallic and nonmetallic commodities. "You have to be able to differentiate degradable material from what is nondegradable."

2 Paper is better than plastic.

In the spring of 1990, McDonald's began replacing its signature sandwich package, the polystyrene foam clamshell, with a layered paper-based wrap. Studies showed that when all aspects of production, use and disposal were included, paper would generate fewer harmful emissions and occupy less landfill space than polystyrene even if the foam used by in-store customers--40 percent to 50 percent of the total--was recovered and recycled. Conversely, about a year and a half later, New York's Suffolk County rescinded its ban on plastic packaging. The prohibition seemed difficult to enforce, threatened small businesses with big expenses and offered limited environmental benefits.

So who's right? Both, or neither. Whether it's made of paper or plastic, a discarded container is still spelled G-A-R-B-A-G-E. Layered paper can't be recycled; polystyrene can, but seldom is. Lynda Wynn, chief of the source reduction section in the Environmental Protection Agency's solid waste division, expresses no preference. "There isn't one villain," agrees Michael Sheward, public affairs manager for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, which represents 2,500 companies in the United States and Canada that handle all aspects of waste disposal--i.e., hauling, recycling, landfill operation, incineration--exclusive of the nuclear industry. Says Garino, "Plastic gets a bum rap. It's an easy target, low in weight but high in volume."

3 Plastic is clogging landfills.

Surprise. According to Wynn, paper and paper products constitute 40 percent of what we throw away. Next comes yard waste, registering 17 percent to 18 percent. Food waste is third.

4 Paper and grass rot in landfills.

On the contrary, nothing rots in them. "Landfills are like sealed tombs," reports Sheward. "There's no air, light or water." University of Arizona's William Rathje, Ph.D., an anthropologist who excavates landfills, regularly digs up readable decade-old newspapers and food that is recognizable, albeit far past its appetizing prime. …

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